Return to Transcripts main page
Capitol Prepares For Right-Wing Rally; Trump's Erratic Final Days. Aired 2-2:30p ET
Aired September 14, 2021 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Top of the hour. Hello. Thank you for joining us. I'm Victor Blackwell.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: And I'm Alisyn Camerota.
We have stunning new details about former President Trump's erratic behavior in the aftermath of his election loss and the Capitol attack. Two days after the January 6 Capitol riots, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was worried that President Trump's election loss was causing him to spiral out of control.
Milley feared Trump would order a military strike or attempt to launch nuclear weapons to distract from his loss. So, Milley called a secret meeting to instruct his military brass to refuse orders from anyone, including the president, unless Milley himself was involved.
BLACKWELL: This reporting is from the new book "Peril" by legendary journalist Bob Woodward and "Washington Post" reporter Robert Costa.
CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel obtained an early copy of the book, and she joins us now.
Jamie, great to have you. Incredible reporting.
So let's start with that secret meeting that happened on January 8. What have you learned about that?
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So, first of all, the book contains just chilling details of Trump's final days in office.
But what we know is that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley was -- he took secret action to limit Trump's ability to order a dangerous military strike or use nuclear weapons. Let me just set the stage from the book. It's January 8, two days after the assault on the Capitol.
And Woodward and Costa reveal that Milley is so deeply shaken by the attack that he believes that Trump has become increasingly unstable and unpredictable. They also write that Milley believed Trump was in serious mental decline.
Woodward and Costa revealed that Milley has intelligence that China is on edge. He is having back-channel conversations with his counterpart in China. China apparently is worried that Trump is going to do a wag the dog to stay in power.
So, Milley tells his senior staff, according to the book -- quote -- "You never know what a president's trigger point is."
Then, against this backdrop, Milley gets a phone call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Woodward and Costa to obtained -- who have known about the call, but the authors have an exclusive transcript.
Pelosi has the same concerns. And Pelosi and Milley have a very blunt and dramatic phone call where Pelosi wants to know, are the nuclear weapons safe from Trump?
And here is part of that exchange from the book.
Pelosi: "Who knows what he might do? He's crazy. You know he's crazy. He's been crazy for a long time. So don't say you don't know what his state of mind is. He's crazy. And what he did yesterday is further evidence of his craziness."
And Milley responds on the phone: "Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything."
So they get off the call. And General Milley, he reassures Pelosi. But when he gets off the call, he thinks to himself: "Pelosi's fears were well-founded. And he decides to take this extraordinary action."
BLACKWELL: Yes, the transcript of that call is remarkable, to hear the speaker of the House and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs together now deciding something has to be done.
BLACKWELL: So it's the calls with China. It's this conversation that leads to this meeting at the Pentagon. Tell us about it.
GANGEL: So the meeting at the Pentagon, Milley -- this is unprecedented.
Remember, even though he's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he is not officially in the chain of command. He calls in the generals and the officers who man the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon's war room. And he says to each of them, he's instructing each of them, no matter who calls, no matter what the orders are, he has to be involved.
According to the book, Milley says: "If you get calls, no matter who they're from, there's a process here. There's a procedure. No matter what you're told, you do the procedure, you do the process. And I'm a part of that procedure."
So that's the part that's different here, that Milley is really saying to these generals, you have got to make sure I'm in the loop on this.
Now, Milley may be criticized for what some may think was overstepping his authority, but according to Woodward and Costa, he felt he couldn't trust Trump and that he needed to take any and all necessary precautions to prevent him from doing something dangerous.
CAMEROTA: And we will get into that later about why he thought he couldn't trust President Trump.
CAMEROTA: But, meanwhile, one of the dramatic scenes in this Woodward book takes place in the Oval Office. It's the night of January 5, OK, so before the election is supposed to be certified by Vice President Pence.
So what have you learned about this conversation between Vice President Pence and President Trump?
GANGEL: So, we have known the meeting happened.
What the book reveals are the actual quotes, the conversation, as Trump is trying to pressure Pence to overturn the election on January 6. Woodward and Costa report that not only is there this showdown going on inside the Oval Office, but the two men can hear MAGA supporters outside the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue cheering.
And Trump gestures out the window and says to Pence: "If these people said you have the power, wouldn't you want to do it?"
Pence replies: "I wouldn't want any one person to have the authority."
And then there is this exchange.
Trump says -- sorry -- you lost the place here. Here we go.
Trump says to Pence: "But wouldn't it almost be cool to have that power?"
Pence says: "No, I have done everything I could and then some to find a way around this. It's simply not possible."
Trump then loses his temper and start shouting: "No, no, no, you don't understand, Mike. You can do this. I don't want to be your friend anymore if you don't do this."
BLACKWELL: And we have talked about how Pence has been for some this hero, has been lauded for standing up to the president ahead of January 6, but it's not for the lack of trying to support the president.
He tried to do something to support him.
GANGEL: So we know he got to the right place on January 6, but what Woodward and Costa report in the book is that Pence was really looking for a way to help Trump.
And he reaches out to, of all people, former Vice President Dan Quayle, who was George H.W. Bush's vice president, also from Indiana, to ask him for advice. And Pence over and over again -- the exchange is just extraordinary -- says to Quayle: You don't know the position I'm in. Isn't there anything I can do?
And over and over, Quayle shuts him down.
I will just read one line. Quayle says -- quote -- "Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away."
It just goes to show that this may have been a close call.
CAMEROTA: Who knew that Dan Quayle would be the real hero of this story?
GANGEL: There you go.
CAMEROTA: I mean, that is a revelation so many levels, Jamie.
And then it was not just General Milley who was expressing concern about President Trump's deteriorating state of mind.
CAMEROTA: What were other officials saying?
The book -- the last book, you may remember, was called "Rage." This could be rage 2.0. The book is filled with Trump lashing out and having temper tantrums in the Oval Office. Top advisers and Cabinet officials in the book describe scenes that they say are like out of movies, "Full Metal Jacket," "Dr. Strangelove."
There are two quotes that I want to read you. CIA Director Gina Haspel says of Trump that he is -- quote -- "like a 6-year-old with a tantrum."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says: "He's in a very dark place right now."
And there's a showdown between then-Attorney General Bill Barr and President Trump. And he sort of confronts Trump about his chances of getting reelected. And he says to Trump: "They just think you're an F'ing A" -- you can read it up on the screen what he says.
BLACKWELL: We got it, yes.
GANGEL: But the -- the number of shouting matches -- the F-word is used in this book more than I would say every Quentin Tarantino movie, "The Big Lebowski," and, what is it, "Wolf of Wall Street" combined.
It really shows why Milley came to the point where he was at, because just explosion after explosion.
CAMEROTA: Jamie, it's fascinating.
And, obviously, it's not just the expletives that got all of these officials ' attention.
CAMEROTA: It was just the behavior and the seeming unhinged quality that is depicted, that you describe and Bob Woodward.
Jamie, stay with us, if you would.
We're also joined by CNN global affairs analyst Susan Glasser. She's also a staff writer for "The New Yorker," and CNN military analyst retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.
General, I'm just going to start with you, because all of the stuff about maybe obviously having the nuclear codes, maybe launching a nuclear weapon, having access to declare some sort of military strike, all -- I mean, the way it's depicted in this book, all to soothe this very broken, wounded ego, because he, President Trump, could not process his loss.
What do you think of General Mark Milley having to do basically this end-run around the commander in chief?
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I'm not sure I would call it an end-run, Alisyn.
I think General Milley took some very prudent measures. As a former member of the Joint Staff, of the J7, I remember when the chairman would pull all of his staff officers, we would pull all the brigadier generals, the one-stars that were working the shift in the National Military Command Centers, as Jamie just said, and say, hey, we're in a tense situation.
And this was during the start of the Afghan war. We're in a tense situation. Make sure your reporting is right, make sure the processes and procedures are run the right way. The problem is that we're talking about a commander in chief that, as the book describes, was so far off the rails, that General Milley felt concerned about that.
And, as Jamie just said, he also-called General Paul Nakasone, who is the NSA -- national security -- the guy that runs the signals, and said, hey, keep your needles up. Make sure you're monitoring foreign countries, make sure you're seeing what's going on.
He also calls Gina Haspel, as Jamie just said, the head of the CIA, and says, make sure if there's any warning coming in from the other states.
I mean, General Milley isn't going to call the head of the People's Liberation Army in China and say, hey, don't worry about everything that's going on. He's getting signals that other countries are concerned, as well they should have been during this period of time. They were all watching what was going on in the insurrection the 5th of January.
So I think General Milley didn't limit the president's power. I think, if he did, that would be certainly a civil-military action of the highest measure and should be condemned. But what he did was ensure that guardrails were in place.
So I give him high marks for this, based on what's described in the book.
BLACKWELL: Susan Glasser, you have had similar reporting about the concerns of General Milley in those last days of the Trump administration.
And I think it's important to highlight, as Jamie did there, that this was not one man with a hunch. As we heard from CIA Director Gina Haspel, from the secretary of state, from the attorney general, they were all concerned that this president could do something quite dramatic to, again, wag the dog or hold onto power.
SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: That's exactly right.
And I think this new Woodward reporting, I'm looking forward to reading the book. I think it's very much consistent with some of the things we have already known about General Milley and others in the days after the election, right?
So even before January 6, some of these things were happening. First of all, to the general's point, the political instability right now at that period of time was Donald Trump himself. And so I think what you see from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was an effort to sort of no surprises, right, to not further unsettle the situation, to understand what's happening.
We also know already and my reporting has confirmed that General Milley was already having a series of 8:00 a.m. phone calls every day with the then-chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Mike Pompeo, at the time, the secretary of state. Milley called those the land-the-plane phone calls. This was happening even before January 6.
There was enormous concern that Donald Trump could perhaps provoke an international incident. Obviously, those concerns were heightened after January 6, which is why you have this interesting new reporting from Woodward about the January 8 meeting, because, obviously, the president was potentially going to do something destabilizing since he already had.
BLACKWELL: All right, everyone, please stay with us.
We're going to continue, of course, to have more reporting from Jamie on the new book in just a moment.
CAMEROTA: Also, new concerns about a right-wing rally that is slated for this weekend. What's being done to protect the nation's Capitol this time?
BLACKWELL: Eight months after the attack on the Capitol, the U.S. Capitol Building will once again be surrounded by fencing.' Capitol Police just to prove the protective measure. They say that they're preparing for violent or armed protesters who may show up Saturday for a rally in support of the January 6 rioters.
CAMEROTA: CNN's Ryan Nobles is on Capitol Hill.
So, Ryan, what do we know about who is organizing this event and what specifically makes Capitol Police think it could turn violent?
RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's really the content of this protest and rally that's planned for Saturday that has made Capitol Police very concerned about what it could become.
This is a group of right-wing protesters, some of them closely aligned with the former President Donald Trump, who are coming to Washington to demand what they're calling justice for the folks that were arrested in the wake of that January 6 insurrection who remain behind bars, but who have yet to go through the judicial process right now.
And there's been online chatter surrounding this protest that's really concerned, not just Capitol Police, but other law enforcement entities around the Capitol that have led to them taking these dramatic steps.
That includes resurrecting that Capitol fencing around the Capitol itself. It also has led to them requiring every member of the Capitol Police force to be on call and working on Saturday. They have also authorized the deputization of other law enforcement agencies to work with the Capitol Police on Saturday should it come to that, should they need that reinforcement and backup.
And it seems pretty clear here that what Capitol Police are preparing for is a worst-case scenario, but there are a lot of signs that Saturday will not be nearly as threatening as what we saw here on January 6.
Obviously, the preparation is a big part of that, right? They're taking a number of steps that they didn't take in the days before January 6, but, also, we don't have a lot of the elements that lead to January 6. In fact, there won't be a single member of Congress here on Saturday, as both the House and Senate are not in session.
And, also, the former President Donald Trump's not expected to be here. In fact, not one Republican lawmaker is expected to speak to this rally, which could lead to there being heated emotions and the situation getting out of control.
So everybody's taking all the necessary precautions, Victor and Alisyn, but the idea that this is going to become January 6 seems at this point to be -- we're not quite there at that point.
CAMEROTA: That's great context, Ryan Nobles. Thank you very much.
Let's bring back Jamie Gangel, Susan Glasser, and retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. So, General Hertling, I just want to start with you, because that's comforting to hear Ryan Nobles spell out why the officials and Capitol Police think it won't spin as out of control as January 6 did. But on the flip side, these are the most zealous right-wing radicals of the group. These are the people who support the violence and the vandalism that we saw at the Capitol.
They're coming back in support of the people who were arrested. So do you have concerns about this weekend?
HERTLING: I most certainly do, Alisyn, because I think we have seen a lot of our security and intelligence agencies say that there is the potential for domestic violence from these kinds of extremists.
The FBI has said that. Other organizations, intelligence organizations, have said that. And I think what we're -- we may see is a -- how much can we get away with from the groups that are coming back to Washington?
We know their ilk. I think we have a lot of reading of the intelligence to see exactly what they're going to do. And I'm very concerned that there's going to be a continued push toward extremists and extremist behavior. So, yes, it still concerns me.
Even though this may be the next iteration, it's still troubling to see anything like this which sort of mirrors an insurrection or a seditionist act.
BLACKWELL: Jamie, Secretary Antony Blinken is on Capitol Hill today for a second day answering questions about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
And as we learn more from this new book "Peril," there is a connection here to Afghanistan, in which General Milley was in part concerned about a potential for nuclear action, a potential for some military strike based on a military order signed by the former president relating to Afghanistan.
Tell us about that.
GANGEL: So, it's true.
The book reveals that General Milley had already had a firsthand experience with President Trump in effect going rogue. On November 11, just a week after Trump lost the election, Milley discovered that the president had secretly signed a military order to pull out of Afghanistan by January 15, before he left office.
There was just one problem. No one on his national security team knew about the order. It had been drafted by two Trump loyalists at the White House. And it totally blindsided the Pentagon.
And there's an extraordinary scene where Milley discovers this at the Pentagon. He goes over to the White House to see National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, who admits that he doesn't know anything about the memo either. And Woodward and Costa have this exchange. Milley says -- quote -- "What do you mean you have no idea? You're the
national security adviser to the president. And the secretary of defense didn't know about this, and the chief of staff to the secretary of defense didn't know about this?" And the chairman, Milley himself, didn't know. "How the hell does this happen?"
At that point, they didn't pull out of Afghanistan. O'Brien went into Trump, convinced him to nullify the memo. But it's significant for two reasons. One, Milley had a concrete example of Trump doing an end-run around his national security team.
It's also interesting from a political point of view, because now that Trump and some of his allies have been criticizing Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan and claiming that they weren't really going to get out, or they were going to do a better job, this memo is proof that Donald Trump had signed the directive to get out on a very fast timeline, a much faster timeline.
CAMEROTA: Isn't that interesting, Susan? I mean, for -- again, for all the Trump loyalists who say President Biden is doing this in too precipitous fashion, President Trump, I mean, based on this book, wanted to do it much sooner and not alert anybody.
GLASSER: Well, that's right.
And, by the way, this actually has already been reported in "The New York Times," "The Washington Post" and elsewhere of the existence of this, which was actually a memo that was drafted by a Pentagon civilian adviser, a former colonel who had appeared on FOX television, and apparently Trump's personnel chief are the ones who brought it to Trump in the Oval Office.
His national security team disavowed it. Trump's intention, he wanted to leave. He wanted that to be part of his final days, the final chapter of his presidency. Remember, he fired Mark Esper, the defense secretary, immediately after his election loss to Biden in November and installed a new team of civilians at the Pentagon, who General Milley was very suspicious of.
And so there was a real atmosphere of intrigue and instability around everything having to do with this. But I think the point about Afghanistan is really well-taken. Again, it was the Trump administration deal with the Taliban in February of 2020 that set the preconditions and the situation that the Biden team inherited when they came into office on January 20 of this year.
And so there's been such disingenuousness listening to the congressional hearings over the last two days with Secretary Blinken. Many of the Republicans are talking as if Joe Biden was the only president who ever had anything to do with Afghanistan. There's been a sort of breathtaking, but maybe not surprising, level of hypocrisy and forgetting about the Trump policy that many of them supported.
BLACKWELL: Yes. For all those Republicans who say, well, what was the plan for the Americans or the SIVs in Afghanistan, imagine what that would have looked like if the pullout happened over four to six weeks, and a secret memo, as we heard, was signed there.
Jamie Gangel, Susan Glasser, Mark Hertling -- General Hertling, I should say, thank you so much.
All right, we're going to look forward, of course, to more reporting from the book. But let's turn to this, the former president's big lie.
CAMEROTA: Yes, it's rooted in baseless claims, as you know, of election fraud. And it's made its way, of course, into the California recall.
So, what this means for Governor Newsom's fight today to hold on to power.